Skip to main content

Intangible cultural heritage

Traditions, knoweldge, craftsmanship techniques  
Photo: © UNESCO/James Muriuki

on intangible cultural heritage

What is intangible cultural heritage?

UNESCO has defined five areas that cover intangible cultural heritage:

  1. orally transmitted traditions and forms of expression, including language as a bearer of intangible cultural heritage
  2. performing arts
  3. social practices, rituals and festivals
  4. knowledge and practices relating to nature and the universe
  5. traditional craftsmanship

What do we mean by tradition?

Tradition is often misunderstood as the preservation and protection of time-honoured values that have been passed on and which cannot be subject to change. As a matter of fact, however, intangible cultural heritage is dynamic and characterised by change. As a rule of thumb, a tradition must have been passed on for at least three generations. It is also possible for its function, form or content to have changed throughout this time. The creative process of transferral is a characteristic of living tradition.

Why is there a UNESCO Convention for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage?

Intangible cultural heritage affects everyone. Be it consciously or sub-consciously, everyone is familiar with customs, traditions, crafts or passed-on knowledge that is characteristic of the identity of a region or community. We are often surrounded by intangible cultural heritage without it being explicitly depicted as such. Promoting the public perception of living traditions as intangible cultural heritage through support from UNESCO can help raise awareness of such cultural phenomena and ensure that they are respected.

How can you maintain and protect intangible cultural heritage?

Intangible cultural heritage shifts the focus towards humans and their cultural traditions. To maintain intangible cultural heritage, it is important that this component is regarded as being of value to its tradition-bearers, as only they can ensure its contemporary practice and safeguarding. UNESCO and its national commissions can support these efforts through providing visibility and measures to raise awareness.

Is intangible cultural heritage also World Cutural Heritage?

The term “World Cultural Heritage” is reserved for tangible heritage.  Similar to the international Lists of World Heritage, there are three UNESCO lists for intangible cultural heritage:

  • the Representative List of Human Intangible Cultural Heritage
  • the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding
  • the Register of Good Safeguarding Practices

    More information on the international lists can be found here. An application for inscription the international lists is only possible for components that are already on a national list.

What is the National Inventory for?

The primary aim of the National Inventory is to take stock and to improve the visibility of the intangible cultural heritage of a country. This is not about recording “Austrian heritage” but rather about taking stock of intangible cultural heritage in Austria. The elements included in the list and their bearers are examples of the creativity and innovation of our society. To be entered in the National Inventory, components will only be considered if they are of actual relevance to their respective communities and those affected and if they are still practiced today. The Convention does not deal with the preservation of components that are no longer lived or actively practiced.

Who can apply to be included in the National Inventory of intangible cultural heritage in Austria?

Every community or individual who excersises customs, traditions, knowledge and skills can apply for inscription of their element on the national list by applying to the Austrian UNESCO Commission. In doing so, it is important that all communities and persons affected by the application provide their consent and that they confirm this by signing a declaration of consent.

Can I claim special funds if my entry is included in the National Inventory?

No. Inclusion in the National Inventory is explicitly not linked to any special funding, nor does it have any legal consequences.

Who decides which components to include in the National Inventory?

The Advisory Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage decides once a year which elements to add to the National Inventory. This committee consists of representatives from the federal ministeries involved, the departments of culture for each federal state, as well as experts on the five areas of intangible cultural heritage.